Travel in the Time Of Covid Part II – Marrakesh

The northeast is being hammered with yet another snowstorm today, so it’s the perfect time for me to reminisce about what our guide told us is the “Las Vegas of the Arab world”, Marrakesh. (That’s the English way to spell it; the French spelling is Marrakech).

Once again, we stayed in a unique and charming riad. It had a rather unimpressive exterior, but as with the other riads on our tour, the interior was absolutely beautiful. Take particular notice of my favorite spot, the rooftop pool and bar.

How lucky for us that the riad was also a SPA, or more accurately, a hammam. In case you are wondering, according to Wikipedia, a hammam is a “type of steam bath or a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world. It is a prominent feature in the culture of the Muslim world and was inherited from the model of the Roman thermae”. Man, oh man, is it ever WONDERFUL! Fortunately, our schedule allowed for sufficient free time, so Kris and I were able to experience the full effect: a massage, steam bath and total body scrub that left us feeling magnificent. (And undoubtedly, we LOOKED magnificent…but to keep this from being an x rated post, there are no photos of our argan oil coated, naked bodies.)

Our riad was ideally located, within walking distance to the Bahia Palace, and DJemaa El Fna, which in the days of old, was the site for executions. They must have had a LOT of them, because the place is HUGE.

During normal times, the square is a “happening” place, crowded with a very different form of public entertainment: vendors, performers, fire eaters, snake charmers, dancers–you name it. Perhaps this is where Marrakesh earned the name of Las Vegas of the Arab world? But not during Covid. Although Morocco has done an amazing job vaccinating its citizens, tourists were still staying away while we were there in October.

The view from the second floor balcony of the Argana Restaurant

In some respects, the lack of crowds was an advantage, making it easier for us to navigate through the Medina, where we again saw the juxtaposition of the old and the new.

You’ll see that many of the women are wearing headscarves, probably more so in Marrakesh than in the other cities that we visited. A young woman explained to me that Moroccan women wear headscarfs for one of three reasons: 1. religion, 2. as a fashion statement, or 3. because of a “bad hair” day. My guess is that the lovely lady on the motorbike was making a fashion statement. What do YOU think?

Do you think the ladies on the left will be shopping at any of these stores on the right?

My favorite spot in the Medina was the beautifully restored Le Garden Secret. Photos of the “before” version were displayed in the on-site museum. (Sorry about the reflection. the lighting situation was far from ideal.)

No trip to the Medina would be complete without a stop at a rug shop. Most of us spent our time there sipping mint tea, but Dave was on a mission to find something special for his dining room, and he made a very significant purchase.

For our last day in Marrakesh, OAT offered us two optional tours: a hot air balloon ride and museum visits. I highly recommend both!

Was it worth getting up at 5:15 AM to watch the sun rise over the mountains, from the vantage of a hot air balloon? I’ll let you be the judge.

6 out of 9 of us opted for the balloon ride. Our Spanish pilot kept us entertained with his commentary. He was almost as wonderful as the view.

Now the museums: Although Trip Advisor rated Garden Majorelle as the top attraction in Marrakesh, I happen to disagree. Yes, it was nice and all that, but quite honestly, we have better gardens in the USA. They just weren’t owned by Yves St. Laurent

I much preferred the Museum of Water Civilization, because I have never seen anything quite like it.

I loved everything: its architecture, the exhibits, the stories.

Is this not a gorgeous building?

It was chock full of wonderful legends. I chose just a couple to share to give you a feel for how delightful the museum is.

This seems like a lot more fun than sacrificing a virgin to make it rain.
Here’s an example of Morocco’s progressive attitude toward women. Notice women get to choose whether or not to wear a headscarf.

There is so much more to say about this fascinating city, but I’ll stop now and encourage everyone to go and see for yourself. Be prepared to have your preconceived notions shattered.

On The Road Again

Who knew that driving all day could be so delightful? The scenery between Fes and the Sahara is varied and spectacular. It also doesn’t hurt that the nine of us are traveling in a bus that could transport more than forty passengers. We are up high, so we all get panoramic views.

This photo was taken from the window of the bus.

We had several stops along the way, including an opportunity to stroll through a forest.

Mike provides scale, to give an idea of the size of this Lebanon cedar.

My favorite stop, however, was our visit with the Barbary monkeys.

Don’t even THINK about touching that tangerine!
This monkey was much friendlier. She was fine as long as I was at her level, but when I stood up, I frightened her and she scampered off.

The hotel where we stopped for lunch had this beautiful map, which included our departure and destination, and stops along the way. I’d mark our route out for you, but it is too difficult to do on an iPhone. But I’ll give you a rough idea of our route: we started at Fes, on the top, by the palm trees and ended in what the map calls ‘Arfoud’, (Erfoud) near the bottom. Ultimate destination: off the map on the bottom, near the camels.

Outside of major cities, Morocco has few traffic lights. Instead, they have numerous traffic circles, (if you’re from Massachusetts the correct name is ‘rotaries’. We Massachusetts natives have our own special language).

I particularly liked the circle in Midelt, which highlights their #1 product. Can you guest what it is?

If you guessed “surgical masks” , you’d be wrong. Mostafa had our driver (Mohammed) go around the circle twice so we could all snap a photo of the “Big Apple”.

Our stay was at a lovely hotel close to the Sahara Desert. Although I am so sorry for the Moroccans working in tourism, I must confess it HAS been rather nice having these beautiful hotels and pools all to ourselves.

Most people would be delighted to see that huge, luminous full moon. Not us. Why? We were hoping for dark desert skies for our resident astronomer’s lecture the following night.

If you’re wondering why in the world I’m blogging rather than experiencing the majesty of Morocco, fear not. This is being written while on the bus heading to Ouarzazate. I’m using Verizon’s Travel Pass for internet connectivity. And I’m looking up from my phone frequently. And yes, as usual, my blog is several days behind our experiences.

Three Nights in Chefchaouen

It would not be accurate to say we spent three DAYS in Chefchaouen because during our stay, we spent one day in a local northern village and another in Tetouan.

I can understand why other OAT travelers are so enthusiastic about this pre-trip. (For non-OAT travelers, OAT always offered the opportunity to add additional days before and after their main trips). The scenery is beautiful, the food is wonderful and inexpensive, the accommodations are gorgeous, and the people are so happy to see American visitors. As we were walking through the Medina, the locals were yelling “welcome”, “hello”, and different phrases, including “happy wife, happy life”.

Moroccans are very proud that their country was the first to recognize the brand new United States right after we achieved independence.

At Chourafa, the owner told us that Eisenhower stayed in that very dwelling during World War II, back before it was transformed from a private house to a restaurant.

Owner of Chourafa, entertaining us with his stories.

One feature of OAT is home visits, where we have the opportunity to spend time with a local family, sharing a meal and learning about their day to day lives. Our visit was with Mohammed, his lovely wife Ishhane, and their two daughters, where we enjoyed this fabulous feast made from ingredients grown on their farm in a little village so remote even Google hasn’t found it!

Tagine
Kris and Ishhane with their assistant. Mohammed and his family built their house, including this kitchen.

It’s good we were so well fed, because after we left the village to return to Chefchaouen, we did a LOT of walking. It is a bit of a hike to get to Boulazaafar, the mosque that overlooks the city. Built by the Spaniards in the 1930’s as a way to make up both for the expulsion of Muslims after the fall of Andalusia in the late 1400’s, and for the Spanish invasions during the late 1800’s, it has never been used. Understandably, the Moroccans were a bit suspicious of the Spanish military’s attempt to make friends. Maybe they heard about the Trojan horse?

Okay, so it isn’t Hagia Sophia, but the location is pretty spectacular.

It is SO worth the 30 minute uphill stroll to get there in time to watch the sun drop behind the mountains.

From that vantage point, we could hear the call to prayer issuing forth from the 30+ mosques scattered throughout city.

Most of the other hikers were a bit younger than we were, by roughly 4 or 5 decades
Another view of Chefchaouen: Different centuries coexisting. Women are doing their laundry in the stream and taking photos with their cell phones.

We were offered an optional trip to Tetouan, which all of us, except Mike took. Although the scenery on the drive was spectacular, in retrospect, I think I would have preferred to spend that time in Chefchaouen instead.

The optional tour consisted of a stop in a small Roman Museum, a walk by the palace, and through the Medina, the Jewish quarter and mella, and a seafood lunch in a restaurant across from the beach. Although enjoyable, I’d had similar experiences on other tours, so for me, additional time in Chefchaouen would have been preferable.

Next stop, Tangiers!

Morocco, FINALLY!

When we signed up for this Overseas Adventure Travel trip in August of 2019, the world was certainly a different place. Even 20 months after shutdown, Covid STILL has a significant impact on our daily lives. I will admit, we had some reservations about leaving home, even after being fully vaccinated, but through Facebook, I was able to connect with Rocky and Julie who traveled to Morocco with OAT in September. They kindly “friended” me, and because of their photos and posts, we felt comfortable forging ahead. My goal is to do likewise, but rather than posting on Facebook, I’ll be communicating via this blog. So, if you want to tag along with us to see whether you’d feel safe visiting Morocco, just sign up and you’ll get a notification via email whenever I post.

This first post might be boring for those who are not planning to become future Morocco travelers. It’s really a compilation of information I would have found helpful, prior to leaving home.

Getting there

Initially, we were flying to Casablanca via Paris on Air France, stopping in Paris for four days. Although we normally enjoy being on our own, because of Covid, we realized that we wanted the comfort of having a guide look out for us. Plus, with different countries having different rules, we figured those four days were a complication we could do without, so I hit the internet, to determine whether it was possible to get from JFK to Casablanca non-stop.

The only non-stop I could find was via Royal Air Maroc, which has one daily round-trip flight. It is a codeshare with American Airlines, but unfortunately OAT does not have an agreement with those airlines, so we were on our own. I’ll be honest—it was a little complicated, because with the code share, we had two different flight and booking numbers, and two different customer service phone lines. AND, although we booked and paid through the American site, we couldn’t use that site to select our seats. We also were unable to check in on-line, and print our boarding passes, something we normally do. A hassle, yes, but we avoided changing planes in Paris, and we arrived in Casablanca seven hours earlier than we would have if we’d stayed with Air France.

Royal Air Maroc

Our flight was scheduled to leave JFK at 8:40 PM, so we left our house at 3:45 PM because of NY traffic. It took almost 2 hours to get to the airport, but checking in and getting through security was relatively easy.

Our flight would arrive in Casablanca at 8:30 AM local time, 3:30 AM our bodies’ time. (It actually departed and arrived on time!) Knowing how poorly I do with sleep deprivation and jet lag, (picture a toddler who needs a nap) we decided to book business class on the way over so we could stretch out and sleep.

Business Class also included admission to the Primeclass Lounge in terminal 1. I’m not sure if Covid is responsible for the food offerings, but let’s just say that particular perk was not a selling feature.

Like USA Airlines, Air Maroc has lay flat seats in business class

I was surprised that dinner was provided on an 8:40 PM departure. In fact, I thought the appetizer was the whole deal and it was enough for me, so I skipped the hot entree. All I can tell you is there were three choices. We also got a decent breakfast.
The business class perks that WERE selling features were a special line in passport control and priority luggage handling, so it was waiting for us when we arrived in baggage claim. In fact, the whole process went so fast and so smoothly, we were off the plane, through passport control, baggage claim and customs, had gotten money at the ATM and were outside the terminal in 25 minutes.
To make the cost reasonable, we opted for economy on the way back. I promise to report on THAT flight too, so you, dear reader, will know what to expect from each option, should Air Maroc be in your future. Our return flight departs shortly before 1:00 PM, versus 7:30 AM (the Air France option), so we should be rested enough to deal with whatever version of economy Air Maroc offers.

Arrival

Our hotel, the Radisson Blu, arranged for a car to pick us up at the airport. The cost was 500 MAD and we were able to pay with our credit card. Our guide had warned us that only passengers are allowed inside the terminal, so we knew to look outside for our driver, right after we hit the airport ATM for some local currency. He also told us the most we could withdraw is 2000 MAD, ($235.22) delivered in 100 and 200 bills, so we were prepared for that.
It took about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel, because of traffic and a couple of accidents.

Mohammed VI’s image is on the front of all bills, but the reverse varies. The hotel changed a large bill for us

Packing

Mostafa, our guide, sent us a wonderful welcome email, full of useful information, like where we would be able to have laundry done, (Fes, Ourazazade and Marrakech), and what to pack (bathing suit and hairdryer, among other essentials.) For a while, we seriously considered traveling with carry on only. After very carefully reading the luggage allowances on Royal Air Maroc’s website, I became concerned that ONE carry on meant just that, with no “personal item” allowed. We would have been really bummed if we had eliminated things that we wanted to bring, only to learn at the airport that one of our two carry-ons would have to be checked. So, out came the duffle, and in went more ”stuff”. Mike was able to easily include his laser pointer and binoculars, in anticipation of the dark skies in the Sahara. He’s an astrophysicist, so interested fellow travelers can look forward to a professional explanation of what we are seeing in the heavens.

Map

The image at the top of this post was created courtesy of Google maps. The cities we will be visiting are listed in order, with the blue pins giving you an idea of the ground we will be covering. Are any map aficionados out there? If so, this link will allow you to get additional information about the cities we are visiting by clicking on the blue pins.
https://goo.gl/maps/Np8GEL1ripWqEgx57

For the past two years, we have been “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’, plannin’ and dreamin’ “ about traveling to Morocco. (Who remembers that song? Extra credit if you remember who sang it.) Right now, dreamin’ is Mike’s choice, but I’m going to check out the pool so I’ll be sunnin’ and swimmin’.

The Tesla Chronicles: 1. The App

Happy 2021 everyone. One of my resolutions is to write several Tesla posts relating “the good, the bad and the ugly” aspects of ownership. So, here goes. Let’s see how long THIS resolution lasts!

After you buy a Tesla, you simultaneously enter into a very intense relationship with your smartphone. Pre-purchase, I usually had a vague idea where my iPhone might be. Now, it is rarely out of my sight. Why? Because my iPhone is also my car key and the way to access all of the wonderful functions on the Tesla app. Check it out.

Yes, many cars allow you to remotely turn on your heat and air-conditioning. but can you also choose your desired temperature? Does it allow you to turn on the seat warmers? It only takes a swipe of “climate” to do both. Of course, you have to REMEMBER that function exists, which for me, is somewhat of a challenge.

Controls” allows you to flash your lights, blow the horn, remotely start the car, lock and unlock the doors, open the front and rear trunks, activate “sentry mode” (which turns on cameras so any activity around your car is captured on video). If by any chance you allow someone else to drive your car, you can limit the maximum speed limit and if you choose “valet mode“, you also prevent access to the glove box.

Charging” seems self explanatory, but it will be the subject of a future chronicle. (Bet you can’t wait)

Location” made me comfortable choosing a white car. My last three vehicles have all been red, because that is, by far, the very BEST color for finding a car in parking lots. (I have trouble localizing sound, so the noise button on many cars doesn’t help me much). Sadly, red Teslas cost $2,000 more, so I opted for the only color that didn’t increase the price. Because location shows you exactly where your car is at any time, that feature (and the inability to hot wire it) makes theft of your Tesla a bit challenging.

Those of us who didn’t pay extra for Full Self Driving (FSD), at time of purchase can change our mind at any time by swiping “Upgrades” and forking over an additional $10,000. FSD allows you to input your destination to let navigation take over. You literally can leave the driving to the car because FSD allows it to change lanes, exit highways, stop at traffic lights and stop signs- whatever is necessary to get you to where you want to go. It will even park itself upon arrival at your destination.

Let’s say when you arrive, the sun is shining but the weather takes a turn for the worse, and now the rain is coming down hard. No worries. With FSD, you can SUMMON the car to drive itself to pick you up. It might be worth $10,000 to see the expression on others’ faces as they watch the driverless car come rolling your way. Not to me, but I’ll bet there are others for whom it would be worth the $$$. As for me, I’m quite fine with the “less than full” self driving capabilities I currently have. If you think that might be the topic for another post, you could be right.

Another current upgrade: An acceleration boost. Instead of taking a whole 4.2 seconds to go from 0 to 60, for a mere $2,000, you can cut the time to 3.7 seconds. Who would care about half a second difference? Who would even notice? Certainly not members of MY demographic. I’m convinced, however, that there IS a particular demographic Tesla designers/engineers keep in mind. Hint: my son is definitely a member of their target market.

We still aren’t done with all of the app’s features. You can schedule “Service“, (another future topic) or call for “Road side assistance” (fortunately, so far I have no experience with THAT feature).

At the very bottom of the app is the odometer, the VIN and the software version. Yeah, here comes the BAD part. You can’t seesaw many miles you’ve driven unless you look at the app, or go through a screen or two on the “iPad looking thingie” in the car. Maybe it’s just me, but I LIKE being able to easily check how many miles I’ve gone.

Now let’s move to the TOP of the app. Tapping the gear box at the top left brings you to “Settings“, where you get emails and notifications about software updates (another future topic) from Tesla, access video guides, and synch your calendar.

The little arrow at the top performs the same function as location.

Finally, in the upper right hand corner are the wi-fi, internet and battery indicators, plus the “loot box”. The loot box is where your free supercharger miles show up whenever someone uses your referral link. If someone uses a referral link when they buy their Tesla, they also get 1,000 miles of free charging at a SuperCharger. If you happen to be in the market for a Tesla and don’t have a friend with a referral code, I’d be delighted to share mine. 

https://ts.la/shelley57380

So there is a whole lot of GOOD going on, but I promised Bad and Ugly so I’ll end with that: The BAD (and Ugly) is the supercharger miles expire. If you do most of your charging at home, which I do, then the only time you would use a supercharger is on a long trip. During Covid, there haven’t been many of those!